ATLANTA — Visit any of the nation's more than 100 historically black colleges or universities and you'll see clusters of men and women engaged in the rhythmic clapping and foot stomping routines known in black Greek circles as "stepping."
Now a white Arkansas team's win in an Atlanta step competition has started a fiery debate over the African-inspired tradition and whether the integration of a once-ethnically exclusive activity constitutes a form of cultural theft.
"What has happened is black youth culture, what people would call hip hop, sort of made black culture accessible and appealing to all kinds of people," said Walter Kimbrough, president of historically black Philander Smith College in Little Rock and an expert on black Greek life. "It really now has become an American experience."
The uproar began when the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha team from the University of Arkansas beat out five other sorority teams to win last weekend's national final in the Sprite Step Off competition. A YouTube video of their performance, inspired by the movie "The Matrix," generated hundreds of comments.
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Posters questioned everything from whether a white group should have been allowed to compete to whether judges wowed by the unlikely competitors inflated their scores to let them win.
"Good Job but let the Black folks have their own thing for once!!!" wrote one commenter, who said the Zeta Tau Alpha team did well but should not have won.
On Thursday, sponsor Coca-Cola announced "scoring discrepancies" and said the runner-up — the Alpha Kappa Alpha team from Indiana University, whose members are black — would share first place and receive the same $100,000 in scholarships that the Zeta Tau Alphas won.
It was unclear what the discrepancies were and Coca-Cola would not elaborate. The tournament began in September with a series of regional qualifying rounds.
While scholars have debated the origin of stepping, the phenomenon is generally believed to have originated with black Greeks around 1969. Some link it to a form of African "gumboot" dancing, which involves performers rhythmically slapping and stamping their feet. It's a form of dance made popular by workers in South African mines.
Pulling from things like military cadences and dance routines, stepping usually involves stomping out rhythms in heavy boots or loud shoes, with emphasis on precision and flair. Step crews often travel from coast to coast to earn cash, trophies and bragging rights for the most precise or clever routine.
As the phenomenon expanded, other Greek groups began participating. Now, it's not uncommon for white or Latino Greek groups to participate.